A little over 5000 words this weekend. I feel less useless. There’s a bit more to the story than what’s below, but the whiskey was starting to win over the caffeine, so it will keep. Things have to come to a quick head here in part two so that I can ‘flash-forward’ to where it opened with the entire folk of the horsemen on the move into the Centralia Valley. That leaves me part three: I gloss their victory over the cannibals, followed quickly by escalating demands from the horsemen and the City. Then: Adrianople.
That’s later. For now, Nichole misses her friends and writes them letters.
Five days later, she patted poor Toast’s neck, who seemed disappointed that they weren’t stopping at Fort Reilly, but proceeding on, into the badlands.
“There, there,” Nichole murmured.
The sun was at its peak when they passed over what was left of the Deschutes River emptying into the Columbia. Desert all about them, the pins had cloaks about their faces against the dust and sand. Seeing her looking about, Bakke dropped back and waved a strip of cloth at her.
“Thank you, Armando,” Nichole said, pulling her goggles down and wrapping the cloth around her nose and mouth. Dust, more than sand, was an enemy to a machine as much as a biologic. “How much further today?”
Of the one hundred and twenty in their group, only about thirty were mounted, the rest coming on horse-drawn carts along with their weapons. That made going slower than when she’d traveled with the cavalry detachment.
Bakke looked past her at Miller Island.
“Maybe another eighteen miles, to the John Day dam,” he replied, letting his eyes come back to hers. “Still unhappy with our pace?”
“This is your job; you are supposed to be here,” she replied with a small shake of her head. “My place is at the university. The longer I am out here the less effective I am.”
“A reasonable reply!” He grinned behind his kerchief as he moved his horse forward. “I don’t believe a word of it!”
Annoying man! But, to his credit, he was constantly moving about his men, talking, questioning, cajoling. Different, it appeared, from Brunelli’s assessment of him.
The sun was very low behind them when she spied the artificial waterfall that was the wreckage of the John Day dam. Too far from the City to maintain and with no local population like The Dalles, time and one bad earthquake had ruined it: the half on their side of the river, the power station, showed several huge cracks. The spillway of the opposite side was a fallen jumble of steel and ferroconcrete.
With a few called orders from Bakke, his men were setting up their laager for the night: carts and horses in the center of what had been a parking lot, followed by crew-served machine guns, with pickets beyond them. Foot patrols during the night were constant.
The pins in the City might be derided by the population, Nichole thought as she put up her tent, but these are effective soldiers. Soldiers loyal to a man, not an idea. If we do succeed in establishing Teresa’s legitimate succession to her father, then I would have them take the same Oath I did: to the Throne, not its occupant.
Sitting in front of her tent, Nichole held her notebook in her lap with her left as she wrote with her right.
My dear friends, she began. Having only received two replies from the couriers, Mac and Gil had told her that they had shared their letters from her with each other. ‘It makes us miss you a little less!’ Mackenzie had noted in her spidery cursive. I managed to not speak of our slow pace, but something must have lingered on my face as the commander of our jaunt teased me. At this rate it shall be two more days to the Blue Mountains. Depending on where the main camp of the horsemen is, days after that! My dorm-friend will have wasted away without my breakfasts and dinner leftovers! My boy-friend will have let his eyes wander to that… that other machine! I won’t have it!!
Darkness was deepening and she wanted no questions about her nature. She wrote faster.
Because of our pace, we did not stop at the Information Center. I wanted to visit with Prior Tuchman and Adamar some more! And maybe take a picture of the room where you felt me up, boy-friend! Did my dorm-friend just turn red? I bet she did!
So far, neither we nor our couriers have been bothered by horsemen. In fact, we’ve yet to see any of them at all. I’ve caught the commander once or twice staring up and away at the ridgelines around us, but I’ve not seen anything. My coming on a prearranged mission should not be a factor.
She paused. Unless their intelligence is better than we know. Time to close.
I shall write again at our next stop, but the line of communication gets longer and thinner. I love you both so much! Please take care of each other! ~N
Standing, as she did every evening, she folded the letter into a small envelope and went in search of the communications sergeant. Ah! Just there!
He looked up from performing a battery check on their satellite uplink, there only to let the City know if everything went pear shaped.
“Miss Clarke,” he said quietly. “Another letter?”
“Of course!” she replied, passing it to him.
“With luck, the riders might catch up with us just after we’re underway in the morning,” he said, stuffing the paper into his BDU pocket. Nichole paused while he completed his test and began tearing the set down.
“You have made this trip before.”
“Is it… quiet like this? At The Dalles, they tried to kill me.”
Almost dark, he focused first on getting things stowed away before answering her.
“No, honestly,” he replied, rubbing the back of his hand across the dust on his forehead. “Whether you want to call them guides or escorts, they’ve met up with us just a few miles after the last dam.”
She knew he meant the last working dam.
“I wonder what’s different this time?” she asked, putting the humor into her voice.
“I wonder!” he laughed back.
“Jones.” Bakke’s voice from the dark toward the river. Nichole had watched him walk up knowing the other man could not.
“You are my eyes and ears. How are they?”
“Five by five, sir!”
“Thank you. Miss Clarke? Let’s take a walk.”
From the communication station they slowly spiraled out. It was a few minutes before Bakke spoke again.
“Suborning my men, Nichole?” Alone, he could be informal.
“I like to call it ‘making friends.’”
“Of course you do.”
Another few minutes saw them to the picket line.
“You’ve seen them, up on the ridges. And you wonder why they haven’t joined us,” she tried.
“Jones tell you that?” he shot back.
“I’ve eyes in my head, Armando.”
He allowed himself a small sigh.
“In hindsight, I should have kept your head under cover: helmet, hijab, something!” he huffed. “Once they saw a woman, it would take very little to that intel to move at the gallop up their chain of command.”
“I am sorry.”
“No,” she saw his head shake in the blackness. Perhaps he meant it? “Like I said, my mis-step.”
“Do you think this has compromised the entire mission?” she paused as he did. The moon came over the rim of the river’s gorge bringing enough light for a human to see.
“They will need the – ” he stopped himself and tried again. “The armaments we’re bringing them, for the cannibals. I wonder…”
He turned to face her.
“If they are this scared of you, what should I be?”
With enough light that they were somewhat visible to the rest of the men, she could not touch him with her hand. But she could reach him another way.
“I would hope,” Nichole began with great control, “you are my friend, too, Armando!”
Yes! She watched his breathing double and the flush of heat to his face.
“Your boyfriend? At PSU?”
Now she was on guard.
“Luckiest son of a bitch in this broken world. Let’s go back, Nichole.”
She followed without a word.